The Obama administration announced on Oct. 2 that it was relaxing a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. The United States will now allow the Pentagon and U.S. companies to provide Vietnam with "maritime security-related defense articles." The move coincided with a visit to Washington by Deputy Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh -- where he met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- and came without much warning. This may have been intentional given the controversy surrounding it.
Looming over the decision is Vietnam's exceedingly poor human rights record and Hanoi's unwillingness to undertake basic reforms. Like China, its neighbor to the north, Vietnam has changed a great deal since the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in the mid-1970s, when the arms embargo was first put in place: It is far wealthier, more integrated in the world economy, and it has relaxed state control over business. But as with China, the basic reality of its governance remains the same: It is a one-party, non-democratic state that imposes harsh limitations on basic rights and freedoms.
The U.S. government defends the policy change by claiming that maritime equipment cannot be used to stifle dissent. This argument misses the point. Of course, Hanoi won't fire U.S.-made torpedoes at protesting crowds. Vietnam's security forces don't need complicated military equipment to quiet critics. When they arrest dissidents and bloggers, they just drive to protest sites, or people's homes, and arrest them. Vietnam does not need to purchase firearms, batons, and tear gas from the United States at all -- its security forces can purchase these inexpensive items in existing markets.
But the decision to start lethal arms sales undercuts the brave work of Vietnamese activists who expect the United States and other democracies to pressure the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam to end its systematic repression and engage in serious reform.
It sends a signal to Vietnam's ruling party that they can choose to reform or not, and be treated the same either way. That is not the kind of message Hanoi needs to hear.
The Obama administration says that the Vietnamese government is taking small steps toward reform. Hanoi appears open to discussion about closing some of its forced labor detention sites for drug users, switching instead to voluntary drug addiction centers. The government has also signed, though not yet ratified, the Convention Against Torture, an international human rights treaty that obligates countries to criminalize torture, and it voted on Sept. 26 in favor of a U.N. resolution on LGBT rights. As evidence of a changing dynamic, U.S. officials also cite recent political prisoner releases: about 10 cases in the last few months.
A closer look shows a different story. Torture is still endemic in Vietnam, and the government has taken no steps towards scrapping laws that criminalize free speech or political organization. Most recently released prisoners were terminally ill or otherwise incapacitated by poor health. In the case of the higher profile dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu – a legal activist who has criticized government leaders for corruption and mismanagement – the government did not release him but rather forced him into exile in the United States, where Hanoi believes he will be less able to organize opposition to Vietnam's one-party rule.
Meanwhile, over 150 other Vietnamese convicted for peaceful expression or other activism in recent years remain in prison -- including numerous high profile activists like Le Quoc Quan, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, and Nguyen Van Hai. Physical attacks against dissidents, often by anonymous thugs, are on the rise.
Vietnam continues to impose significant restrictions on religious freedom, clamping down on independent Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and other religious institutions. While officials cite an increase in registrations of houses of worship as evidence of reform, numerous churches do not or cannot register and remain illegal. In any case, the number of registrations can hardly be cited as evidence of reform -- since religious groups should not have to win government blessing to exist in the first place. The U.N. special rapporteur on religious freedom Heiner Bielefeldt cut short his July visit to Vietnam because the government was harassing people with whom he wanted to meet and interfering with his work.
Proponents of the move say that Vietnam needs better maritime equipment and vessels to counter Beijing's territorial claims in the waters of Southeast Asia, especially in the wake of a naval standoff that occurred in May after China placed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters. The Oct. 2 decision to relax the ban was in part a reaction to the May incident, but was also made in the larger context of the Obama administration's "Asia pivot" of focusing more military and economic attention toward Asia, even when it comes at the expense of democratic values.
Focusing more attention on Asia should mean focusing more on Asians -- in this case, the 90 million people of Vietnam. Closer ties with Hanoi should not come at the expense of Vietnamese citizens, activists, and bloggers who are fighting for democracy and freedom.